|Kelly Macdonald (right) is a sweary Scottish cop|
It’s an odd place, the inside of Charlie Brooker’s head. Reading his journalism, or watching Screenwipe, you’d expect his inner Numskulls to be venomous, splenetic creatures, firing bile through his nostrils and sputum through his eyes. But his television series, Black Mirror (Netflix), is oddly traditional in its approach. Though the six films traverse genres, they share a point-of-view, being somewhat futuristic, and concerned with the malign influence of technology. The soldiers have a chip in their heads that make then see the enemy as horror zombies. The beautiful people rate each other on social media, so they never have to interact with the scum. The kid who fears being shamed on the internet is blackmailed, by text, into doing something unspeakable. Someone invents a system in which the most unpopular people on Twitter are killed by robot bees. (No honey from that hive mind).
The aim, as Brooker has attested, was to create something akin to The Twilight Zone, a fantasy anthology in which each episode was free to wander within the parameters of a certain worldview. Judging by the reaction on (irony alert) social media, Brooker has satisfied his audience. It’s true that Black Mirror shares with Rod Serling’s fantasy series a habit of exploiting wrinkles in normality. But the science is only a slight exaggeration of what currently exists, and the fiction in these computer game narratives seems retro, and conservative in its instincts. It is, more or less, Tales of the Unexpected, with iPhones.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Is it binge-able? Possibly, though watching a lot of this stuff can be a headnip. The final film, Hated in the Nation, in which Kelly Macdonald is a cop on the trail of the evil genius who employs those drone drones to enact Twitter revenge, is the most straightforward, and also contains the line which comes closest to summing up Brooker’s point of view. It’s not entirely publishable, and depends for its impact on the colour of Macdonald’s language. It can be found around 30 minutes from the end. “OK, OK,” Macdonald says, “the government’s a cauliflower. What are we gonna do about it?” Except she doesn’t say cauliflower.
Anyway, the best film is Nosedive, the social media satire directed by Joe Wright and starring Bryce Dallas Howard, though it’s run close by Shut Up And Dance, a malign Challenge Anneka in which Alex Lawther is humiliated by the webcam of his computer. Men Against Fire, which adds a technological angle to the socialisation of soldiers, is also quite effective, though it is typical of Brooker’s oeuvre; hiding its craft beneath an arc of ire which is adolescent in its purity.
In Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope (Sky On Demand/Now TV) Jude Law plays the pontiff as an irritable, vindictive bully who may not believe in God. The show has already won large audiences in Italy, and its sacrilegious elements are (slightly) diluted by the drama’s ability to wrap its absurdity in a cloak of black comedy. Law certainly has fun portraying the pope as a Cherry Coke-drinking rock star whose troubled dreams are only marginally more disturbing than his untroubled waking hours in which he challenges the culture inside the Vatican. He also refuses to be visible, suggesting the greatest artists of recent times - Salinger, Kubrick, Banksy and Daft Punk - were invisible. So he is, you know, fallible. Things perk up in episode 2, where the mafia-like struggle gets underway, and Diane Keaton - the nun who raised the dope Pope - appears wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a joke about her virginity.
In Westworld (Sky On Demand/Now TV) the sense of hyper-reality has grown so familiar that it seems fitting when the splatter from a shooting dusts up the lens of the camera. If it’s about anything - and it may be a very elaborate parable contemplating nothingness - Westworld is a kind of existential paintball about storytelling itself. It includes the useful, western-derived phrase “to go blackhat” (play with your worst urges). The Frankenstein figure, played by Anthony Hopkins, lives in a grand house with cyborg servants, but he also like obeisance from his fleshy colleagues. The enlightened cyborgs are the most sympathetic characters, while Ed Harris’s grim desperado inhabits an ambiguous space. “This whole world is a story,” he growls. “I’ve read every page except the last one.”